Vol. 2 No. 5 - Feast of St. Nicholas 2007
Urban & Orthodox:
Faith and the City
"Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep." - Romans 12:15
In the centuries leading up to the Reformation, only a handful of cities in Orthodox lands boasted a population in excess of ten thousand people. Even Constantinople, the Great City, enjoyed a population that was smaller than any major North American metropolis. Orthodox life was often synonymous with what we would today call village life, and it was village life which shaped the practice of the faith.
On a practical level, village life shaped the life of Orthodox Christians in many ways. Since a church was within walking distance of home, repeated trips to the church many times a week or even every day, were not uncommon. Churches were left unlocked, not simply because the world was less prone to crime (there were many robberies of churches), but because individuals would beat a regular path to the doors of the church, entering for services, or simply to light a candle on the way to or from work. In short, the churches were rarely empty, and services were a full time job for the main parish priest.
Feast day processions regularly wound through village streets, where many locals either attended the services, or at least stopped work and went outside to greet the procession, men removing their hats, and all faithful reverently making the Sign of the Cross. Faithful friends were only a few doors away, if not next door, and neighbours - whether friend or enemy - were neighbours for life. Fasting was an accepted social norm; it is said that it was virtually impossible to purchase meat on the streets of Moscow during Great Lent.
The world has changed radically over the last millennium, demographically speaking. The sprawl of new cities has in many places destroyed the intimacy of the village. For the most part, churches are kept locked. The busy world of money making does not break its stride for feast days, and only occasionally for weekends and "holidays". Friendships and parish relationships, are all too frequently subject to the same fate as brand loyalty in merchandise: good while you've got it, but not something that's a lifetime commitment. Religious processions are viewed as obscure by many people in our cities, replaced by Santa Claus and other kinds of parades.
We must ask ourselves, how is it possible in an increasingly urban environment to live out the life of Orthodox Christians, individually, and especially, in a community? The community question is key, since the Holy Mysteries cannot be undertaken alone, and the most central Mystery of Holy Communion, can only take place in an assembly of faithful with a priest.
Many Orthodox parishes have tried to address the geographic separation of the faithful using electronic communication, email lists, blogs, and online community chats. While these means of communication can be helpful, the human aspect of in-person contact is easily lost; it is almost impossible through email or text messaging for a brother or sister in Christ, much less a priest, to share the fullness of laughter and tears with their brethren. Additionally, electronic communication sets aside many of the limitations and nuances of personal communication, and leaves faithful open to the ever-present reality of Internet addiction. (Those who argue against the pervasiveness of such a problem either have not read the Church Fathers speaking on the human heart, do not deal pastorally with people, or have never seen the Internet). In city life, electronic communications provide a means of sharing information, but never a means of sharing the intimacy of a Christian community. If this kind of rapport is seen by some as a new kind of Church community, it is fundamentally a false one.
Long distance telephone plans provide a more effective way of rebuilding the Orthodox village in the city. Such means of communication allow for the nuance of the human voice, and the subtleties of communicating deeper personal experiences, feelings, and even sins, normally without concerns for such exchanges being permanently electronically recorded. Yet even here, the sheer availability of the means of communication that should make our big cities smaller are in fact making our cities nosier.
And here we have a fundamental problem for the authentic Orthodox life: village life did not simply differ from city life in terms of numbers, but in terms of pace and quietude. Our cities pose a serious threat to life as Orthodox Christians, not because of high crime rates, drug sales, or cultural diversity but because loud and busy cities are a threat to our interior life. Those who live in large, busy cities, cannot hope to live out an authentic Orthodox Christian life without recourse to the regular routine of hesychia - inner stillness - which prepares each faithful person for life in the unnatural urban wilderness. A twice or thrice daily prayer rule is not simply about "fitting in the prayers" - its mostly about withdrawing from daily routines which destroy us, inch by inch, in order that we may return to the God Who restores us. Praying before the beginning of work in our cubicle at our job site is not simply about marking out our territory: it is about holding onto a very frail thread which anchors us to eternity, in the midst of corporate oblivion. Regular trips to monasteries or visits to our confessor are not "retreats" in the western, touristy sense: they are about addressing the inner noise of the human heart put into place by the outer noise of life in the big city.
Of course, all this takes time - not just time to develop, but a willingness to give up other things in order to pray many times each day, to attend to holy living, to be present for church services on week days as well as weekends, and to take time away in order to fulfil spiritual needs. This may involve sidetracking from beachfront holidays to attend church. It may involve asking your employer for a time or place to hang up an icon or to say prayers. It will certainly mean taking time away from activities - both domestic and at work - to observe at church feast days and prayers for the souls of the dead.
Several years ago, someone we know told us a story about some Muslim women in a nearby Walmart, who at the appointed time for Islamic prostrations toward Mecca, fell to the ground in the ladieswear section, and began to recite their chants. They were oblivious to the stunned middle-class white spectators ogling them from nearby aisles, as the confused store employees wondered what they should do.
Let us ask ourselves: are willing to withdraw several times each day from the noise of city life, in order to prepare ourselves for life in the city? Are we willing to consider moving to a village of Orthodox people, or - better still - to forming such a community? Are we willing to put our pride on the line to ask our employers for time and space for our Faith? Are we willing to take time away from work or home to cultivate real and lasting friendships with Orthodox brothers and sisters, not to mention with our confessor?
Without walling off in our cities space for our Faith - both physical space and space in time in daily life - the roar of the city will engulf, not Orthodoxy, but us as Orthodox Christians. The Tsars of Serbia and Russia, knowing the very fabric of their empires depended upon their intercessions before God, stopped imperial business in order to drop to their knees to pray in cities that were much more supportive of Orthodox life than our big cities today. Without asserting our Faith in the time and space of big city life, we will be washed away, drowned out - hour by deafening hour. It does not necessarily take the construction of an Orthodox chapel beside the mosque in Walmart. What it does take is an unqualified commitment to transforming life in the big city into life in the Kingdom of God - starting with the transformation of our own heart.
Father Geoffrey Korz, (Feast of St. Nicholas, 2007)
© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.